Thursday, December 18, 2003

A Human-Based Animal Ethics

I'm bringing this topic up, not because I feel it's more relevant to my life than other ethical concepts, but because I had an idea about it. You see, most PETA-like statements of "animal rights" operate from the standpoint that animals are in some way morally equivalent to people, that their suffering is as terrible to them as our suffering, that they have souls in whatever sense we do, etc. I can't agree with this posture. I believe that people are of a different moral dignity, but I still (of course) think that inflicting unnecessary pain on animals is inexcusably immoral.

First off, I recognize that the pain animals feel is not quite the same as the suffering of human beings. An injured tiger may flee its attacker or respond with aggression, but neither are the human response of hatred; a bear may attack something that threatens her cubs, but will not later track down the interloper for revenge; a deer that breaks its leg does not curse its condition, nor ask why this happened. Of course, a human baby will not have adult reactions to pain either, but there are more vital reasons for protecting human children.

We recognize that animal pain is not on an equal standing with human pain when we witness, say, the widespread starvation of wild elk in Alaska. We may find that sad, but our concern doesn't extend to the level it would for an Inuit tribe starving to death in the same area. We would- at least we should- help the people in that situation, and we understand that the death of many elk is just part of the natural order in that case.

However, pain inflicted by humans on animals is a different case. Not because of some metaphysical value of animals, I think, but because we identify their agonies with ours. As much as we can reason about animal pain, the sight of a wounded animal can often move us as if it were a human who was suffering. To inflict needless pain on an animal, I think, has the psychological flavor of doing the same to a human. It's no coincidence that abuse of pets is a precursor of cruelty toward people; an abuser may "take out" his resentment of other people by attacking an animal, making it an effigy of sorts. It's as if he were hurting the person he hates.

To make my point, consider the Milgram experiment. Subjects believed that they were torturing someone else with electric shocks, although in reality the other person was an actor who felt no actual pain. A large number of subjects obeyed the researchers' commands to continue, even to the point that they were 'killing' the other person. Now, although nobody was in fact suffering, I believe that the subjects were acting unethically, in much the same way it's still wrong to shoot another person if the gun misfires. On some level, they were committing real cruelty, since they believed that they were doing exactly that.

What does this all mean? Society has been looking at animal cruelty the wrong way around; the real problem isn't that the animals feel unnecessary pain, but that people willingly inflict it, and that there is some moral equivalence on that end to cruelty towards other people. I don't have a problem with eating meat, as long as the companies are doing their best to be humane (this, of course, is a matter I haven't looked into closely yet; ah, how long should invincible ignorance last?). Am I being clear enough?

Of course, I don't think that most people would argue against my conclusion that animal cruelty is morally wrong. I suppose that makes this a philosophical irrelevancy. Oh well; I still need to practice my reasoning, even on easy targets.

P.S. The teaching in the Catechism, by the way (#339), also looks at it from the perspective of human actions, not of animal rights, but talks in terms of correctly using God's creation.

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